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If “Moby-Dick” had somehow been conceived as a documentary, it might have resembled this spellbinding French/British/American film, which was shot on a trawler under dark, grim conditions in the North Atlantic.

“Leviathan” begins with an ominous quotation from the Book of Job and a series of images that are so abstract that you’ll likely spend the first 15 minutes wondering which side’s up and whether there is any down.

Is that a rusty chain, or an elaborate fish hook, a bright wave that will not end, or a shipwreck on the scale of “Life of Pi”? Could it be all of the above?

The deliberately garbled soundtrack, which underlines the fate of desperate creatures that will soon be known simply as seafood (most of the action takes place near the Massachusetts coast), is similarly creative. There’s no need for subtitles; the film is almost language-free.

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The one concession to narrative conventions is an English-language commercial that promises an end to constipation. It appears to be heard only by a fisherman, listening in the ship’s kitchen, who looks too exhausted to respond.

Gradually you realize you’re witnessing a nonlinear entertainment that’s setting its own rules, and you’ll either go with the flow or take an early leave.

On its own terms “Leviathan” is quite an accomplishment. The mixture of arresting images and carefully chosen sounds is quite striking. The final episode may be too much, but the filmmakers clearly can’t let go of any of it.

John Hartl:

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